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Florida lawmakers work to reform juvenile sentencing laws

The high-profile national advocacy organization Campaign for Youth Justice has singled out Florida’s criminal justice system as choosing to adjudicate more cases involving teen defendants in adult criminal courts than any other state’s justice system. It has deemed Florida’s aggressive approach to be a “clear outlier” among states who charge youths as adults for a variety ofjuvenile offenses. Florida legislators have attempted on several occasions to pass meaningful juvenile sentencing reform legislation without any success. However, the spotlight on Florida’s approach will likely inspire lawmakers to push through reform efforts with renewed vigor. Among the most pressing reasons to reform the system are both consequences for juvenile offenders and consequences for the public. According to the policy director for the Campaign for Youth Justice, more than one in three juveniles who are sentenced to incarceration within the adult system become more likely to reoffend after release than they would be had they not be incarcerated in the adult system. Not only does incarcerating juveniles in an adult system potentially harm juveniles in a number of ways, it makes them more likely to commit crimes in the future. As a result, this approach neither helps the offenders nor the public. Though some progress has been made in reducing the number of juvenile offenders who are trapped in the adult system over the past few years, the actions taken so far have been inadequate in proportion to the problem at hand. It is critical that the Florida legislature moves to revise this approach urgently and adequately. Source: Sunshine State News, “Florida Struggles to Craft Juvenile Sentencing Policy,” Margie Menzel, Oct. 16, 2013

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Fines, Fines, Fines, Can I Pay These Criminal Fines

Increasingly as cities feel the economic crunch of the current financial crisis, they begin turning to raising permits, taxes, and  fines. Criminal fines have also risen. When someone is accused of a crime and pleads guilty or no contest or even convicted, they may be assessed criminal fines or have to pay restitution to the alleged victim. These fines serve to fill the city coffers, “punish” the accused, and offer redress to the alleged victim. Most often, after the accused has already paid his debt to society through probation or incarceration, they are still left with the debt of these criminal fines. Saddled with this debt most people have a difficult time paying for other bills. These other bills often become neglected and before you know it, a downward spiral of debt ensues. That is when many people turn to bankruptcy for help. Attorney Walter Benenati in Orlando explained to me how criminal cases can turn someone’s life upside down where they are forced to turn to bankruptcy. He is known for his Life Has a Restart Button campaign which he advertises in Central Florida. As he put it, “Sometimes the last choice is the best choice” for eliminating debt. He said bankruptcy usually does not get rid of criminal fines or restitution but it can help wipe out other debts (i.e. credit cards, loans, broken leases, repos) so a person can focus on paying back his debts to government. He said a person can recover from a bankruptcy within two years. He knows because he had to file bankruptcy years ago and now he helps others get a fresh start.

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Florida woman accused of embezzling from employer

A Florida woman has been accused of embezzling $190,000 from her employer. Police state that she was purportedly overpaying herself and also endorsing checks from the office in order “to make personal credit card payments.”  She is now charged with felony grand larceny. Though the woman apparently works for a medical office, the specific location of the employer was not disclosed. Her employer apparently terminated the woman’s job after allegations were made that embezzlement had taken place. We do need to keep in mind that an arrest is different from a conviction.  Though newspapers write stories up as if allegations actually occurred, it remains up to prosecutors and arresting officers to prove that a crime did take place.  Individuals charged of any crime still have the right to be considered innocent in the court of law until proven guilty.  Though police in this case stated that the following of a “paper trail” led to the arrest of this woman, evidence obtained needs to be reliable for this to result in a conviction. Also, even if the woman was involved in a crime, we still do not know what her personal situation would be that would have led up to such an act.  When police state that the woman was using embezzled funds to pay off credit card payments, we don’t know how much in credit card payments the woman was required to make or whether she fully intended to pay her employer back. Criminal defense attorneys will do what they can to tell the side of the story of an individual charged with a crime.  Though individuals are sometimes found guilty, attorneys can sometimes provide courts and prosecutors compelling reasons as to why a sentence should be reduced. Source: KIVI TV, Sep. 17, 2013

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Those hiring forensics experts may influence their conclusions

When individuals are accused of committing criminal activity, their attorneys must oftentimes hire experts to refute claims made by the prosecution and to ultimately prove the innocence of the accused. Similarly, when trying to disprove an individual’s criminal defense strategy, prosecutors also must oftentimes hire expert witnesses to support their claims. A telling new study conducted by psychologists from the University of Virginia and a university in Texas indicates that the testimony and conclusions provided by expert witnesses may change depending on who has hired them. If defense attorneys hire the experts, their conclusions may favor the defendant. Whereas if prosecutors hire expert witnesses, their conclusions may favor the case put forth by those prosecutors. According to the study recently published in the journal Psychological Science, experts hired by defense attorneys generally provide significantly different conclusions in regards to given data than experts hired by prosecutors do when presented with the same data. As one of the study’s researchers recently explained in a statement, “Most expert witnesses believe they perform their job objectively. These findings suggest this may not be the case.” Expert witnesses can influence juries to a great extent. Their testimony often makes or breaks criminal prosecutions. If these experts are vulnerable to the bias of the side that has hired them, should their testimony be given such great weight? This is a question that must be contemplated by criminal justice advocates as they seek to reform the criminal justice system to be as fair, transparent and predictable as possible. Source: Popsci.com, “Researchers Expose Troubling Bias In Forensic Psychology,” Francie Diep, August 28, 2013

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Important bite mark evidence ruling handed down

Sometimes a single judge ruling in a solitary case can influence other judges all over the nation to follow his or her lead. Recently, criminal defense and criminal justice advocates hoped that a judge in New York would rule in such a way that a domino effect of similar rulings would occur all over the nation. Individuals and groups across the U.S. had hoped that a New York judge would prohibit bite marks from being entered as evidence in a criminal trial. Unfortunately, the judge ruled that bite mark evidence remains admissible. The New York judge may have allowed bite mark evidence in his courtroom during a pivotal test case. However, the fight to prohibit unreliable bite mark evidence from influencing criminal deliberations is far from over. Since 2000, at least two dozen men in the U.S. charged or convicted of rape or murder based primarily on bite mark evidence have been exonerated, according to the Associated Press. Many of these wrongfully convicted men spent years in prison and some even spent time on death row for crimes they did not commit. Juries are too often swayed by the unreliable forensic tool of bite mark analysis and the technique thus needs to be banned from the courtrooms of America. Bite marks have become increasingly regarded as unreliable forensic evidence in criminal proceedings. Despite rejection of this evidence by a number of forensic and criminal justice experts, they continue to be admitted as evidence in trials. At this point in time, it is important that judges start rejecting this unreliable form of evidence in order to influence other judges to do the same. Source: Law.com, “In Pivotal Test, N.Y. Judge OKs Bite Mark Evidence,” Amanda Lee Meyers and David B. Caruso, Sep. 6, 2013

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